Water resource decoupling in the MENA through food trade as a mechanism for circumventing national water scarcity


This paper explores the trends driving the growing demand for food imports to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region through the lens of ‘decoupling’. The analysis deploys a water-specific model of the general idea of resource decoupling to analyse the role and potential of food and virtual water trade in alleviating national and regional water limits. Decoupling theorises the breaking of the link between economic and population growth and need for water demand for domestic food production. A key means of reducing pressure on scarce water resources of a growing population is to increase the proportion of food sourced from abroad. This strategy has been strongly embraced politically in a number of MENA economies facing a combination of water and labour shortage. Food imports provide a politically silent mechanism to achieve national food security, and generate significant markets for food-exporting, water abundant, economies including those in the tropics. This paper combines FAO Food Balance data with Water Footprint data to reveal how virtual water flows interact with food import tonnages to enhance or retard national decoupling based on food trade. The analysis reveals that much MENA water is directed at crops adapted to the MENA climate. However, the analysis reveals significant potential for the import of large quantities of MENA water needs from more water abundant countries through supply of staple crops.

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The author acknowledges support from the IDRC-DFID PRISE consortium, funding the development of the methodology used in this paper through their small-grants programme hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The author is also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.

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Correspondence to Michael Gilmont.

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Gilmont, M. Water resource decoupling in the MENA through food trade as a mechanism for circumventing national water scarcity. Food Sec. 7, 1113–1131 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-015-0513-2

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  • Decoupling
  • Virtual water
  • Water footprint
  • Water security
  • Food trade